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Culturally Diverse Women Locked Out of Leadership Roles, Research Says

7 September 2017 at 4:38 pm
Luke Michael
Culturally diverse women are not well utilised in the workplace and are locked out of leadership positions, according to new research from the University of Sydney.

Luke Michael | 7 September 2017 at 4:38 pm


Culturally Diverse Women Locked Out of Leadership Roles, Research Says
7 September 2017 at 4:38 pm

Culturally diverse women are not well utilised in the workplace and are locked out of leadership positions, according to new research from the University of Sydney.

The university’s business school worked with Diversity Council Australia (DCA) to talk with more than 230 culturally diverse female leaders or aspiring leaders from Australian-based organisations.

The results were released on Thursday in their new report, Cracking the Glass-Cultural Ceiling: Future Proofing Your Business in the 21st Century.

The report found there were a number of key barriers locking out culturally diverse women in the workplace, which were borne from a combination of gender and cultural biases which extremely disadvantaged these women.

There was also found to be a lack of access to sponsorship, mentoring and networking for diverse women, while talent assessments were inherently perceived as biased towards more masculine western or “Anglo” leadership styles.

Some of the key statistics gathered from the study included:

  • 88 per cent of culturally diverse female talent surveyed planned to advance to a very senior role, but only one in 10 strongly agreed that their leadership traits were recognised or that their opinions were valued and respected;
  • only 15 per cent of participants strongly agreed that their organisation took advantage of workforce diversity to better service clients or access new markets; and
  • 26 per cent agreed that cultural barriers in the workplace had caused them to scale back at work (ie reduce their ambitions, work fewer hours, not work as hard, and/or consider quitting).

Lisa Annese, the CEO of Diversity Council Australia, told Pro Bono News that this discrimination came from people’s natural aversion to difference.

“Not only are these women’s differences magnified by their gender, but also by their cultural background and sometimes even their caring responsibility,” Annese said.

“So being different, they were viewed as a higher risk appointment. People are uncomfortable with difference, whether consciously or unconsciously, and so the bar is set higher for these women and they have to work harder to break down these stereotypes.”

Annese admitted she was shocked at some of the personal stories shared by participants during the research, which highlighted the stark difficulties culturally diverse women faced.

“People from Asian backgrounds said they have been asked ‘why do Asian women have small feet?’ Or asked if they bind their feet. It’s ridiculous,” she said.

“Intrusive questions are sometimes asked about someone’s culture, which you would never ask of someone from an Anglo-Celtic background.

“More often it’s assumptions about people. Women from a non-Anglo-Celtic background are not seen as being leadership material, [it’s assumed] they are not assertive or ambitious, when none of these things are proven to be true.”

The report also outlined the benefits of having culturally diverse female leaders, who currently only make up 2 per cent of ASX directors.

One of the personal anecdotes shared by a research participant, demonstrated that many people were unaware of this lack of diversity.

“I went to a board directors’ function recently and I looked around the audience to see how many non- Anglo faces there were and there were none,” the respondent said.

“The next week I went to a Press Club lunch, a big political event and the only Asian women in the place were me and Penny Wong. I mentioned this to my (Anglo-Celtic) colleague and she just said: ‘Really? I didn’t notice’.”

Annese said organisations in Australia were missing out on talent if they were ignoring culturally diverse women.

“Also, evidence tells us a lack of diversity leads to groupthink. It doesn’t help deliver innovations or creative solutions. We need to focus on diversity, not in a tokenistic way, but in a genuine way,” she said.

“There’s no use hiring people who are diverse, only to make them conform to a narrow view of leadership. You need to allow them to be who they are, to begin to reap the benefits.”

In order to begin breaking down these barriers, Annese said companies needed to implement a number of key changes.

“Firstly, organisations need to stop looking at diversity as a risk, but as an opportunity. Secondly, they need to focus on bias, whether that be explicit bias or with policy and structure,” she said.

“But there’s also implicit bias. When you assume a woman from an Asian cultural background, who may live in a multi-generational family, has caring responsibilities which would prevent her from an off-shore assignment, you are making an assumption based on a stereotype.

“Organisations need to break the current leadership model. That will be a challenge because whenever you change the status-quo, whoever benefits under it realise what oppression feels like, so it has to be carefully managed.”

While Annese said getting more culturally diverse women into leadership positions would be a slow process, she believed this wasn’t “necessarily a bad thing.”

“Even if change is slow, as long as it’s irreversible, I’m comfortable with that,” she said.

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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